“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”- Mother Teresa
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach Girls Empower workshops for orphanage girls in Ukraine. First and foremost, it is a sincere gratitude and blessing to have Alla Korzh coordinate, translate and make this trip possible for me. I could not have done it without her, our family support and the Ukrainian children who opened their hearts and minds to our workshops.
The children at the orphanage were truly my most rewarding moments. Many of the children not only spoke Ukrainian and Russian but I was able to communicate in Spanish with several orphans, who were fluent in Spanish, Italian and also French. We arrived with sweets and snacks and spent the first days getting acquainted with the children. In addition, we played several games with many of the youth that included teamwork, cooperation and trust.
Our workshops were interactive, which included PowerPoint presentations. The Girls Empower workshop included various topics such as hygiene, puberty changes, substance abuse, social media and sex education. We ran workshops with two groups of girls: one group consisted of the 16-18 year old girls, and the one consisted of 13-15 year-old girls. All of the girls were given an opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns during and after the workshop. We also had a small box with note pads if the girls wished their questions to remain anonymous. After our presentation we had the girls fill out a survey on what they had learned and asked them for possible suggestions for improving our workshops.
I was very impressed with the young girls in our workshop. Many had experienced or witnessed acts of domestic violence, abuse and the malignant effects of alcohol and drug abuse on their families and relatives. The girls were knowledgeable in many areas but needed reinforcement and accurate information on several myths concerning pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The workshop included post reflection questions and a discussion.
Many of the children I met at the summer camp touched my heart but there were a few that seemed to leave quite an impression on me. Ruslan, a young boy who appeared to have a gait disability shyly made his way to me. He spoke fluent Spanish, and this once shy boy suddenly became confident and affectionate. He spoke fondly of his foster family in Spain including a brother and a sister. I inquired about his feet, because he walked utilizing the front part of his feet, similar to walking on his “tippy toes”. He was unable to flex his feet back and forth fully and said he experienced pain on occasion. Ruslan expressed that he “would like to be able to play soccer with the other boys,” but he could not because of the disability.
I am hoping that Ruslan can be evaluated by an orthopedic doctor. A child as intelligent and kind as Ruslan, has the potential to be very successful in life, but a slight disability can render him hostage to potential job opportunities especially in an economically fragile Ukraine. In addition, being an orphan and not fitting in with the other children causes much emotional burden and can dim the light in this vibrant young man.
Three other girls that also left a deep impression on me were Katia, Valia and Lyuba. Katia was a shy, sweet and unique girl whom we shared a fondness of the author Paul Coelho. She expressed to me that she wished she spoke English because “there is so much that I want to tell you.” Katia was interested in becoming a librarian. She truly enjoyed the girls’ workshop and spent time with me and other youth showing me around the summer camp. Her best friend Valia was her confidant. While one might perceive Katia as quiet and introspective, Valia was strong and assertive. Valia and her siblings were severely abused by their mother. Valia was keen, sharp and initially wary but warmed up very quickly to our workshops. Both Valia and Katia will be going to the same vocational schools this year. They both complement each other well and are truly sisters at heart.
A young, vibrant Roma girl, named Lyuba livened every situation with her beaming personality. Lyuba spoke fluent Italian and with my Spanish we were able to converse well. On many occasions Lyuba used her humor to alleviate her inner world’s situation. In addition, I noticed Lyuba go over to other orphans who happened to be alone and would cheer them up with a joke or hold their hand for an afternoon stroll. I was deeply inspired by the orphans’ sensitivity towards not only myself but towards many of the other children. I did not come across any instances of bullying or peer pressure at this summer camp. Instead, the traits of sharing, thoughtfulness and physical acceptance seemed to reign high among the youth when they engaged with each other. These traits are extremely refreshing to witness especially among the disadvantaged youth today.
Many of the children were very insightful and observant of our presence. I was especially touched by the numerous occasions when we offered sweets to the children, and yet they always insisted on sharing and offering me their snacks and bread from lunch. Their generosity, curiosity and spark of resilience in their eyes moved me deeply. On my last day I began crying and several of the girls rushed to console me. I pondered that moment, I, a grown woman with a successful career, was being comforted by children who had experienced pain, abandonment, and trauma with an uncertain future ahead.
Many thanks to all of the young girls who participated in our Girls Empower workshops. There were several young men who expressed interest in our workshop, which renders a great need to provide Boys Empower Health education opportunities to the orphanage boys. My experience in Ukraine has only solidified my belief in and commitment to promoting and being actively involved in girls’ education and educational opportunities for marginalized children and orphans.
I am certain that Sublimitas’ Paving the Path to University tutoring and Change-Makers mentoring, and Girls Empower programs will continue to reach more young people, and I am deeply proud to be a part of the commitment to educating and inspiring young people who are faced with insurmountable obstacles. The importance of education and mentorship not only affects these young men and women but will also shape their active roles in society. One day their learned experiences will affect their roles in becoming parents and guiding their very own children in a positive light that Sublimitas provided for them many years ago.
Mia Redding is a nurse and lives in the United States.